Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in Iowa, when they can’t, what options they have if they don’t have a proper cause, and what the consequences are of walking out on a lease agreement.
Importance of Fixed Periods in Lease Agreements
Without a fixed period, a landlord generally has the same rights as the tenant to terminate tenancy (with proper notice). In the same way that a landlord lacks long-term security on a month-to-month (or shorter period) lease if a tenant decides to leave, tenants lack the same security if the landlord decides to change the terms (i.e. raise the rent) or end the lease altogether.
That’s why fixed periods are an important protection for both parties. They’re not just there to act as a restriction to tenants.
As a result, there are real legal consequences for violating the agreement without proper cause on either side. It’s important to understand when a tenant can get out a lease with a fixed period that hasn’t ended, and when a tenant can’t.
Lease Termination Notice Requirements in Iowa
In Iowa, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases, the lease expires on the last day of the lease. Iowa tenants have to provide written notice for the following lease terms:
- Notice to terminate a week-to-week lease. At least 10 days before the termination date specified in the notice. (§§ 562A.34(1))
- Notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. At least 30 days before the periodic rental date specified in the notice. (§§ 562A.34(2))
- Notice to terminate a yearly lease with no end date. At least 30 days before the end of the first or subsequent term of the tenancy specified in the notice. (§§ 562A.34(3))
Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in Iowa
There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in Iowa without penalty. We’ll go through each of them below.
1. Early Termination Clause
Some modern lease agreements may provide specific terms that would allow a tenant to terminate a lease early in exchange for a penalty fee. Read over the lease and look for language that outlines agreed-upon terms for ending the lease before the end of the fixed period, such as the amount of the fee (i.e. equal to 2 month’s rent) and the amount of notice required (i.e. 30 days).
If a lease agreement contains an early termination clause, before executing it and paying the penalty fee, read further to learn about other conditions that, if met, would not require a penalty fee to be paid.
2. Active Military Duty
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) helps protect active service members who are relocated due to deployment or permanent change of station. The protection begins on the date of entering duty and ends between 30-90 days after the date of discharge.
To break a lease in accordance with the relief act, a tenant must:
- Prove the lease was signed before entering active duty
- Prove they will remain on active duty for at least the next 90 days
- Deliver a written notice to the landlord (example, page 2), accompanied by a copy of the orders to deploy / PCS or a letter from their commanding officer stating their pending deployment.
With that said, the lease does not terminate immediately. Once the notice is delivered, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period. So for example, if the notice was delivered on the 23rd of March, and the rent is due on the 1st of each month, the earliest the lease can terminate is May 1st (meaning, rent is still due for the month of April).
In Iowa, the term “servicemember” means a member of the armed forces, commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard.
3. Unit is Uninhabitable
Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and Iowa is no different.
If those standards are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant and the repairs/fixes are still not made within the allowable time period, a tenant would be considered “constructively evicted”. As a result, the obligations of the tenant under the lease are no longer required, given that the landlord has not met their own responsibilities under Iowa landlord-tenant law. According to Iowa state law (§§ 562A.15), landlord duties to provide habitable premises include the following:
- Compliance. Comply with applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety.
- Repairs. Make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.
- Common Areas. Keep all common areas of the premises in a clean and safe condition.
- Maintenance. Maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied.
- Trash. Provide appropriate receptacles, accessible to all tenants, for collection and removal of waste.
- Heat. Supply running water and reasonable amounts of hot water at all times and reasonable heat between October 1 and May 1 except where the building that includes the dwelling unit is not required by law to be equipped for that purpose, or the dwelling unit is so constructed that heat or hot water is generated by an installation within the exclusive control of the tenant and supplied by a direct public utility connection.
4. Landlord Harassment or Privacy Violation
If the action is serious enough, harassment by a landlord or their violation of a tenant’s privacy may be enough justification for relieving a tenant of their obligations of the lease.
- Landlord entry.In Iowa, a tenant has the right to receive at least 24-hour notice and entry allowed only at reasonable times (§§ 562A.19(3)). There are situations, such as in emergencies or under a court order, when the landlord does not have to provide notice to enter. A tenant must usually grant the landlord access if the landlord has given proper notice and the landlord is trying to enter the unit for a lawful reason, such as to show the unit to a prospective tenant or to make a necessary repair.
- Changing the locks. In some states, if the locks are changed by a landlord without the tenant’s permission or without the protection of specific language in the lease agreement, this can qualify as being “constructively evicted”, and could relieve the tenant of their duties of the lease. In Iowa, landlords are not allowed to lockout tenants (§§ 562A.33).
5. Violation of Lease Agreement
If a landlord violates the terms of the lease agreement, it may be enough justification to break the lease and relieve the tenant from their own obligations (i.e. illegally raising the rent during the fixed period). Because each lease agreement is different, carefully read over the duties and requirements for both parties to understand if a violation has been made, and whether or not there is language describing how certain violations are to be handled.
In Iowa, if the court, as a matter of law, finds that a rental agreement or any provision of it was unconscionable when made, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement, enforce the remainder of the agreement without the unconscionable provision. (562A.7)
6. Domestic Violence
Many states protect tenants who are victims of domestic violence. If you are confronting a domestic violence situation (this can also be stalking), and want to move, check with local law enforcement regarding special state laws that may apply in domestic violence situations. Some statutes the state of Iowa provides for victims of domestic violence include:
- Proof of Status. The landlord is entitled to verify the claim of Domestic Violence status.
- Protection from Termination. The landlord cannot terminate a tenancy, fail to renew a tenancy, or refuse to enter into a rental agreement with a victim of domestic violence. (§§ 562A.27A(3))
Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking
The below reasons are generally not enough justification (on their own) to release a tenant from the obligation of their lease term, and as a result, provide no legal protection against penalties for not honoring the lease.
- They bought a house
- They are relocating for a new job or school
- They are upgrading or downgrading
- They are moving in with a partner
- They are moving to be closer to family
Since state landlord-tenant laws vary, the following reasons may legally permit a tenant to terminate their tenancy early in other states but are not applicable in Iowa:
Illegal contract. In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal and as a result, is generally not enforceable.
- Senior citizen or health issue. Some states offer age or health-related lease-breaking arrangements that permit early lease termination.
Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.
Tenant’s Options if Legal Justification is Not Met
If the previously stated legal conditions are not met, there are still a few options that a tenant has that could allow for them to not be obligated to pay rent until the end of the fixed period.
Talk with the landlord
Some landlords may be understanding and willing to negotiate with a tenant. Every situation is different, and every landlord is different. A tenant’s best chance at getting a landlord to work with them is being honest about the reasons for leaving, to provide as much notice as possible, and to propose possible resolutions that could be mutually beneficial (i.e. by paying 2 month’s rent).
Aid in finding a new tenant
If the tenant moves out before the end of the fixed period, they are still required to pay rent until the end of the period until a new tenant is found. During that remainder period, the landlord is required to make reasonable effort to find a new tenant (if they don’t, the previous tenant is not responsible for future rent).
Therefore, the previous tenant may choose to be proactive and help to find a new tenant on their own, instead of waiting for the landlord to find one. The landlord does not have to accept the newly found tenant if they have reasonable justification (i.e. they have bad credit or rental history), but helping to find a new tenant can only help increase a tenant’s chances of being relieved of future rent.
Iowa Code § 562A.29(3) states that your landlord must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit instead of charging you for the total remaining rent due under the lease. If your landlord rerents the property quickly, all you’ll be responsible for is the amount of time the unit was vacant.
Iowa landlords are required to try to rerent
Iowa state law requires landlords to take reasonable steps to rerent their unit when a tenant breaks their lease. This is referred to as the landlord’s duty to “mitigate damages”. This means that if you leave your lease early and your landlord rerents the unit before your lease ends, then the rent received from the new tenant will apply to your debt.
According to Iowa code § 562A.29(3), your landlord must make reasonable efforts to rerent their unit instead of charging you for the total remaining rent due under the lease. If your landlord rerents the property quickly, all you’ll be responsible for is the amount of time the unit was vacant.
Keep in mind, not all landlords are aware of their duty to mitigate. If your landlord demands payment for the remaining balance of your lease, you may want to notify them of your state’s law.
If you have broken your lease, and you live in a state that requires your landlord to mitigate damages, you should still plan on losing at least one month’s rent. Even if your state law requires the landlord to make a reasonable effort to rerent, in civil court it is common for a judge to award landlords with at least one month’s rent (no matter how quickly the unit is rented).
If your lease does not prohibit subletting, then you are in the clear to do so. However, your lease might contain a clause requiring you to obtain your landlord’s approval prior to subletting. To get landlord approval you will want to send them a letter through certified mail, with a return receipt requested, outlining the terms of the sublet lease agreement. Certified mail is the only proof of delivery that most courts will accept in case you need proof that you notified your landlord. The letter should include the following information:
- Sublet term
- Name of proposed subtenant or assignee
- The permanent home address of proposed subtenant or assignee
- Your reason for subletting or leaving permanently
- Your new address during the sublease if applicable
- The written consent of any co‑tenant
- A copy of the proposed sublease
If your landlord rejects your request, know that they can only refuse the proposed subtenant based on legitimate factors. The law says your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse your sublet.
Consequences of Illegal Lease Breaking
If a tenant breaks a lease without mutual agreement from the landlord or without the proper legal justification and does not pay the rent due for the remainder of the fixed period, the tenant faces the following consequences.
- Loss of security deposit. Usually, at a minimum, a landlord may choose to withhold the security deposit.
- Lawsuit. A landlord may sue the tenant for unpaid rent during the fixed period, which if won, could result in the tenant facing a money judgment. That judgment, if not paid on the spot or if terms are not set for a long-term payment plan, could result in the garnishment of the tenant’s wages or bank account.
- Impact on credit score. While a money judgment won’t show up on a tenant’s credit report (thanks to the National Consumer Assistance Plan), if the landlord chooses to go an alternative route to collecting on unpaid rent by using a debt collection agency, the tenant’s credit score could be severely impacted.
- Difficulty in finding future housing. Whether or not a tenant provides the landlord’s name & contact information themselves when looking to buy or rent in the future, a background check will most likely provide the future landlord or mortgage lender with that information. That previous landlord could provide a very negative reference.
Other Resources for Iowa Landlords & Tenants
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